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NIIMBL gets funds for new STAR Campus center

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The STAR Campus at the University of Delaware is likely to see a new NIIMBL facility after the national organization received $8 million in design and outfit funds. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS 

NEWARK – The STAR Campus at the University of Delaware is set to see new development as the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL) recently received $8 million in federal government earmarks to begin designs for a new center.

Funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as well as dues from its roughly 180 members, NIIMBL is a member of Manufacturing USA, a diverse network of federally sponsored manufacturing innovation institutes. The 5-year-old, public-private partnership tasked with accelerating biopharmaceutical innovation, supporting more efficient manufacturing, and educating a biopharmaceutical manufacturing workforce, gained prominence during the pandemic for its multifaceted role in the response.

NIIMBL and UD now plan to build a so-called Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) facility that would support biopharmaceutical innovation for clinical research in preparation for future public health emergencies. Delaware’s Democratic congressional delegation recently announced that the cGMP project had received $5 million in engineering, design and build funding and $3 million in equipment outfitting funding in the federal Appropriations Bill signed by President Joe Biden last week.

The funding was part of $97 million in funding obtained by U.S. Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, and U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, through the first federal earmarks in more than a decade. Now controlling Congress, Democrats re-established the practice for earmarks, or discretionary spending on projects outside of competitively-bid processes, in this lasting spending bill.

The cGMP facility has been on the drawing board for much of the pandemic, with university officials first publicly suggesting it as a project last summer during a visit from the Economic Development Administration.

Kelvin Lee, Institute Director of NIIMBL | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

Kelvin Lee, the director of NIIMBL, told Delaware Business Times that the project would be a space for research in biopharmaceutical manufacturing – a burgeoning industry in northern Delaware – as well as a manufacturing workforce training program. Many current employers have recently expressed difficulty finding workers for the technical manufacturing jobs and with projects like WuXi STA coming soon seeking hundreds of workers, such a training program will be instrumental to the sector’s growth, Lee added.

“Every day, the industry is really talking about this challenge of not being able to find workers and they’re really good-paying jobs,” he said. “There isn’t enough of a pool of talent and anything that we can do to try to increase the available pool of individuals who can work in this industry I think is really going to benefit people and benefit the industry.”

NIIMBL, which operates out of the Ammon Pinizzotto Biopharmaceutical Innovation Center on the STAR Campus, has advocated for such resources to better respond to future pandemics like COVID-19. The institute has seen an increase in federal support following the pandemic, culminating in $153 million in new funding from its federal partners last summer, including $83 million specifically to work on coronavirus-related projects.

The cGMP would be clinical scale, or larger than a research laboratory but smaller than a full-scale commercial output, and allow NIIMBL’s member companies to see that the innovations work in practice, Lee said.

“It can be a place to test out the performance of new or innovative manufacturing approaches in an environment that really simulates the kind of environments that companies would actually have for their commercial products,” he added.

While essentially a R&D and training facility, it would also be a fully functioning manufacturing plant that could pitch in to help scale production of vaccines or other drugs for clinical trials or in response to outbreaks.

“Clearly COVID has shown that it’s really important to be able to have domestic supply chains not just for drugs, but for everything,” Lee said. “I hope that there will be a wave across many industry sectors that will try to repatriate some of those critical industries, including manufacturing and supply chain, but everything is coupled together. You can’t just say we’re going to start manufacturing here but you don’t have workers.”

The federal funding for the cGMP will allow NIIMBL and UD to begin the design work of the facility and to scope out a true cost of the entire project, which has not yet been established, Lee said. Where on the STAR Campus site that the cGMP project would be located also has not yet been determined. It marks the second possible project announced for the former Chrysler plant this week, as UD officials also disclosed that they are negotiating with development firm Buccini/Pollin Group about building the first residential project on the campus.

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